By a 16 percent margin, Austin voters approved an 8.75-cent property tax hike to partially fund a $7.1 billion light rail transit plan on Tuesday night.
The plan, dubbed Project Connect, entails the construction of new light rail lines and a downtown underground rail station. City officials plan to finance 55 percent of the project, expecting the rest to come from federal funding.
Another $460 million proposition also passed overwhelmingly to fund bicycle lane expansion.
With the new tax, the city will raise $175 million in additional taxes — on top of the 3.5 percent city increase allowed by the state without voter approval. At that rate, it will take 22 years to pay off the $3.85 billion cost — and that’s only if the city can secure the estimated federal funding.
In 2014, a similar but less extensive transit proposal was rejected by a 14-point margin, showing a wide swing in six years.
City officials separated the two increases and together they represent a roughly 24 percent increase in property taxes.
An Austin median homeowner can expect to pay $450 more in this year’s tax bill.
Proponents of the plan say the expenditure will pay off in the long run, projecting increasingly higher numbers of commuters to move from automobile transport to public transit.
As of August, the one rail line already in operation is drastically underperforming expectations, having transported only 2.4 percent of its 2025 benchmark of 17,000 daily riders.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler reacted to the news, stating, “I’m proud to live in a city that is looking to its future — one not satisfied with the status quo. Austin is pushing to be more sustainable, equitable, and affordable in new and innovative ways.”
“The community has spoken and it demands transformative change to traffic, climate and to achieve fundamental fairness and justice for all. Thank you to the broad and deep coalition that worked so hard. Record numbers of voters, especially those young and new, showed up to make ‘change’ the winner tonight,” he concluded.
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty (R-Pct. 2), who was outspoken against the measure, told The Texan, “I accept the will of the voter’s but remain to be very skeptical of how the City of Austin and Capital Metro will carry this plan to fruition without additional huge taxpayer money.”
The tax hike comes at a time of economic strife caused directly by government-mandated closures out of coronavirus apprehension. A 20 percent increase, while only on one portion of the tax bill, is nothing to sneeze at.
Last month, Austin business leaders convened to oppose the measure, specifically citing the escalated tax burden at a time when signs of increased revenues are few and far between.
The original plan was an 11-cent increase, but the Austin City Council revised it after the pandemic and self-inflicted economic pressures proved unavoidable.
All the while, the City of Austin still faces a substantial and persistent homeless problem that continues to grow.
The cost of real estate in Austin has swelled 193 percent over the last 20 years and spending decisions such as this will only further beget that. Proponents of Prop A expect such initiatives to further increase the utility Austinites and those hoping to move here experience.
But the old adage about writing a check one cannot cash applies, perhaps now more than ever.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.